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The Roche lobe is the region of space around a star in a binary system within which orbiting material is gravitationally bound to that star. If the star expands past its Roche lobe, then the material can escape the gravitational pull of the star. If the star is in a binary system then the material will fall in through the inner Lagrangian point. It is an approximately tear-drop shaped region bounded by a critical gravitational equipotential, with the apex of the tear-drop pointing towards the other star (and the apex is at the L1 Lagrangian point of the system). It is different from the Roche limit which is the distance at which an object held together only by gravity begins to break up due to tidal forces. It is different from the Roche sphere which approximates the gravitational sphere of influence of one astronomical body in the face of perturbations from another heavier body around which it orbits. The Roche lobe, Roche limit and Roche sphere are named after the French astronomer Édouard Roche.
Definition of the Roche lobes
In a binary system with a circular orbit, it is often useful to describe the system in a coordinate system that rotates along with the objects. In this non-inertial frame, one must consider centrifugal force in addition to gravity. The two together can be described by a potential, so that, for example, the stellar surfaces lie along equipotential surfaces.
Close to each star, surfaces of equal gravitational potential are approximately spherical and concentric with the nearer star. Far from the stellar system, the equipotentials are approximately ellipsoidal and elongated parallel to the axis joining the stellar centers. A critical equipotential intersects itself at the L1 Lagrangian point of the system, forming a two-lobed figure-of-eight with one of the two stars at the center of each lobe. This critical equipotential defines the Roche lobes.
Where matter moves relative to the co-rotating frame it will seem to be acted upon by a Coriolis force. This is not derivable from the Roche lobe model as the Coriolis force is a non-conservative force (i.e. not representable by a scalar potential).
When a star "exceeds its Roche lobe", its surface extends out beyond its Roche lobe and the material which lies outside the Roche lobe can "fall off" into the other object's Roche lobe via the first Lagrangian point. In binary evolution this is referred to as mass transfer via Roche-lobe overflow.
In principle, mass transfer could lead to the total disintegration of the object, since a reduction of the object's mass causes its Roche lobe to shrink. However, there are several reasons why this does not happen in general. First, a reduction of the mass of the donor star may cause the donor star to shrink as well, possibly preventing such an outcome. Second, with the transfer of mass between the two binary components, angular momentum is transferred as well. While mass transfer from a more massive donor to a less massive accretor generally leads to a shrinking orbit, the reverse causes the orbit to expand (under the assumption of mass and angular-momentum conservation). The expansion of the binary orbit will lead to a less dramatic shrinkage or even expansion of the donor's Roche lobe, often preventing the destruction of the donor.
To determine the stability of the mass transfer and hence exact fate of the donor star, one needs to take into account how the radius of the donor star and that of its Roche lobe react to the mass loss from the donor; if the star expands faster than its Roche lobe or shrinks less rapidly than its Roche lobe for a prolonged time, mass transfer will be unstable and the donor star may disintegrate. If the donor star expands less rapidly or shrinks faster than its Roche lobe, mass transfer will generally be stable and may continue for a long time.
Mass transfer due to Roche-lobe overflow is responsible for a number of astronomical phenomena, including Algol systems, recurring novae (binary stars consisting of a red giant and a white dwarf that are sufficiently close enough together that material from the red giant dribbles down onto the white dwarf), X-ray binaries and millisecond pulsars.
Geometry of the Roche lobe
The precise shape of the Roche lobe depends on the mass ratio, and must be evaluated numerically. However, for many purposes it is useful to approximate the Roche lobe as a sphere of the same volume. An approximate formula for the radius of this sphere is
where A is the orbital separation of the system and is the radius of the Roche lobe around mass . These formulas are accurate to within about 2%.
Another approximate formula by Eggleton is as follows:
where . This formula gives results up to 1% accuracy over the entire range of .
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